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Highway Boondoggles 3:

Big Projects. Bigger Price Tags. Limited Benefits.

by Tony Dutzik, Abigail Bradford and Gideon Weissman, Frontier Group and Lauren Aragon, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Executive Summary

America’s infrastructure is in rough shape. Many of our roads, bridges and transit systems are aging and in need of repair.

Yet, year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and 21st century transportation priorities. 

Nine proposed highway projects across the country – slated to cost at least $10 billion – exemplify the need for a fresh approach to transportation planning and spending. These projects, some originally proposed decades ago, double down on the failed transportation strategies of the past while causing harm to local communities and absorbing scarce transportation dollars. They are but a sampling of many questionable highway projects nationwide that could cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars to build, and even more money over the course of upcoming decades to maintain.

Local, state and federal decision-makers should reevaluate the need for the projects profiled in this report, along with others that no longer make sense in an era of changing transportation needs. Instead, they should focus on real, long-term transportation solutions, including maintaining our existing roads and bridges, repairing potholes, and investing in public transportation, bicycling, walking and other options.

Americans’ transportation needs are changing. America’s transportation spending priorities aren’t.

  • State governments continue to spend billions on highway expansion projects that fail to solve congestion.
    • Expanding highways draws new drivers to the roads, often resulting in a rapid return to the congested conditions the expansion projects were originally supposed to solve.
    • In Texas, for example, a $2.8 billion project widened Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it one of the widest freeways in the world. But, just a few years after completion, morning commute times were 30 percent longer and afternoon commute times were 50 percent longer. And in California, the $1.6 billion widening of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles delivered little benefit in terms of reducing rush-hour congestion.
  • Highway expansion is not a national transportation priority.
    • Highway expansion is often pitched as a way to deal with projected future increases in travel. Over the last decade, however, growth in driving has slowed, with the average American in 2016 driving fewer miles than he or she did in 2002.
    • Forecasts of future growth in driving are often inflated. Americans are now expected to drive nearly a trillion fewer miles per year in 2020 than federal officials projected in 2004.
  • Highway expansion absorbs money that can be used for more pressing needs.
    • In 2012, federal, state and local governments spent $27.2 billion on expanding the highway system – consuming more than one out of every four capital dollars spent on the nation’s road network.
    • Continued spending on highway expansion diverts funds that could be used to address the nation’s roughly half trillion-dollar backlog of road and bridge repair needs and its $90 billion backlog of transit repair needs, as well as to expand transportation choices for Americans through investments in public transportation. 

States continue to spend billions of dollars on new or expanded highways that fail to address real problems with our transportation system, or that pose serious harm to surrounding communities. In some cases, officials are proposing to tack expensive highway expansions onto necessary repair and reconstruction projects, while other projects represent entirely new construction. Many of these projects began or were first proposed years or decades ago, or are based on long-outdated data.

Questionable projects poised to absorb billions of scarce transportation dollars include:

  • I-405 Widening, California, $1.9 billion – Widening one of the nation’s busiest stretches of Interstate highway in Orange County would draw new traffic to the road, create new bottlenecks, and replicate the failed approach to congestion relief of an earlier I-405 widening project in Los Angeles. 
  • I-4 “Beyond the Ultimate,” Florida, $2.2 billion – The construction of tolled express lanes along 40 miles of highway has been pitched, in part, as a way to avoid bottlenecks created by another $2 billion highway expansion project now underway in Orlando.
  • I-75 North Truck Lanes, Georgia, $2 billion – Construction of the nation’s first long-haul, truck-only lanes would represent a giveaway to the trucking industry, while undermining a rail-based approach to freight movement in Georgia that is intended to get trucks off the roads.
  • I-84 Expansion, Connecticut, $715 million – Proposed widening of I-84 in Danbury directs state funds to a road where traffic has barely increased in the last decade, even amid growing demand for better rail service and severe state budget woes.
  • State Routes 53/120, Illinois, $2.3 billion – A proposed toll road in the Chicago suburbs would jeopardize the environment and lacks a viable funding plan.
  • I-66 “Inside the Beltway” Expansion, Virginia, $140 million – A bold plan to reimagine a suburban D.C. highway and expand access to transportation options is accompanied by a politically motivated highway widening project.
  • I-30 Widening, Arkansas, $632 million – Widening a highway that cuts through the heart of Little Rock would impede the city’s downtown revival while potentially causing as many transportation problems as it solves.  
  • I-73, South Carolina, $1.3 billion – A proposal for a new Interstate linking I-95 to Myrtle Beach is unnecessary, environmentally damaging, and would divert money from a growing crisis in road maintenance in the Palmetto State.
  • Madison Beltline Widening, $1 billion – The budget-strapped state of Wisconsin, which has already delayed other highway projects, continues to consider widening a highway around Madison, even as demands grow for more and better public transportation. 

Previous Highway Boondoggles reports in 2014 and 2016 identified 23 dubious highway expansion projects costing an estimated $37 billion that merited additional scrutiny. Of those projects, six have been canceled, are on hold, or are under significant revision. Among projects put on hold or facing new scrutiny are the following:

  • An extension to an existing toll road in southern California was denied on the grounds that it and a future additional extension would threaten local water resources.
  • Plans for the Dallas Trinity Parkway are uncertain after community-led opposition to the proposed toll road resulted in a new, downscaled design and new questions about how the project would be funded.
  • The Illiana Expressway tollway in Indiana and Illinois was suspended amid budget concerns and has been the subject of court challenges that leave its future in severe doubt.
  • A proposal to widen I-94 in Milwaukee was denied funding by lawmakers and the governor due to the state budget crunch and following strong opposition from community advocacy groups.  The land-use group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin found that the state Department of Transportation systematically overestimated traffic projections to justify the expansion.
  • The future of the proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway outside Pittsburgh is in question as the region’s planning agency is reconsidering the project and local officials are looking into the possibility of repurposing the funds currently dedicated toward its construction. 

Federal, state and local governments should stop or downsize unnecessary or low-priority highway projects to free up resources for pressing transportation priorities.

Specifically, policy-makers should:

  • Invest in transportation solutions that reduce the need for costly and disruptive highway expansion projects. Investments in public transportation, changes in land-use policy, road pricing measures, and technological measures that help drivers avoid peak-time traffic, for example, can often address congestion more cheaply and effectively than highway expansion.
  • Adopt fix-it-first policies that reorient transportation funding away from newer and wider highways and toward repair of existing roads and investment in other transportation options.
  • Use the latest transportation data and require full cost-benefit comparisons, including future maintenance needs, to evaluate all proposed new and expanded highways. This includes projects proposed as public-private partnerships.
  • Revise transportation forecasting models to ensure that all evaluations of proposed projects use up-to-date travel information, reflect a range of potential future trends for housing and transportation demand, and incorporate the potential impacts of shifts in other transportation options, including public transit, biking and walking, along with newer options such as carsharing, bikesharing and ridesharing.
  • Give funding priority to transportation projects that reduce growth in vehicle-miles traveled, to account for the public health, environmental and climate benefits resulting from reduced driving.
  • Invest in research and data collection to better track and react to ongoing shifts in how people travel. 
Download Highway Boondoggles 3 - Frontier Group - April 2017.pdf